Fun NFL fact: The (Insert your favorite team here) are totally winning the Super Bowl this year. Okay, obviously I'm being tongue in cheek here but when training camp starts every fan tends to be extremely optimistic about their favorite team and the progress they made in the offseason. Conversely, there are also those fans who are scared to be optimistic and see red flags everywhere they look (Full Disclosure: I tend to be one of these).
When it comes to the Steelers, we fans are no different when you read comment sections of articles here at BTSC. Corner Artie Burns? He’s either a future All Pro that was overlooked by everyone but the Steelers, or a desperation pick that’s a bust waiting to happen. Sammie Coates is either another wide receiver star drafted by Colbert who will break out this year to become the next Antonio Brown, or just a fourth string wide receiver who will be good for about 15 receptions a year and nothing more.
With that in mind I decided to go through the roster and give a realistic Best Case/Worst Case scenario for each group. I’m mostly ignoring injuries as part of worst case because that’s a cop out. More than likely the results for the Steelers will be somewhere in the middle. Some guys will reach their potential, and some guys won’t. Without further ado let’s get into the offense.
Best Case: Ben Roethlisberger plays a full 16 game season and continues at his high level of play. He takes advantage of his talented wide receivers and dynamic running back to set a career high in touchdown passes. He takes advantage of a developing Sammie Coates and quickly gets on page with Ladarius Green to add even more weapons to the roster. If Roethlisberger is forced to miss time, Gradkowski is fully healed from his shoulder surgery that kept him out last year and is able to keep the Steelers offense running reasonably smoothly.
Worst Case: The injury toll is too much and Roethlisberger begins his decline. Martavis Bryant’s production is not made up for by a collection of players, and defenses are able to play more aggressive against the Steelers. Gradkowski, or Landry Jones are forced to start, but not able to progress any more than they have. They fail to take advantage of the Steelers receivers and make the offense one dimensional.
Eli Rodgers/Demarcus Ayers
Best Case: The sky is the limit for Antonio Brown with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger throwing him the football. If all goes according to plan, don’t be surprised to see Brown again flirt with 2,000 yards on the season. In a contract year, Markus Wheaton takes a big step forward in his progression to become a stellar number two receiver. Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates complement each other as the third and fourth receivers, but Coates takes over as the year goes on showcasing the kind of skill that had everyone loving Martavis Bryant in 2014. The last receiver will only catch a handful of passes, but ideally take over punt return duties from Brown.
Worst Case: The lack of Bryant and/or Bell allows teams to focus more attention on Brown, reducing his effectiveness. Roethlisberger is forced to miss time and, like last year, the receivers have trouble getting on the same page as whoever is the backup. Wheaton fails to establish himself as a solid second option while Bryant’s production is never replaced, which makes for a regression in Pittsburgh’s pass offense. Sammie Coates struggles in seeing his first significant playing time and is not a factor while Heyward-Bey can’t quite take the top off the defense. The winner of the Rodgers vs. Ayers battle never contributes and is unable to make a dent on special teams as a return man giving fans flash backs to Jacoby Jones in 2015.
Best Case: As of this writing it appears Le’Veon Bell will be suspended for four games but he is appealing the ruling. Whether he is suspended or not, the best case is that Bell comes back from his injuries fully healthy and, more importantly, confident in his leg be it for 12 games or 16. The best case is that Bell regains his 2014 form that saw him equally deadly in the run and pass game. As a runner, Bell keeps his patient nature and agility to punish offenses on the ground. His receiving ability gives yet another option to Ben Roethlisberger. His combined skills will give defenses headaches and he finally plays in a post season game. If Bell misses time again DeAngelo Williams is able to carry the load like he did last year, then transfer back into a backup role. When Bell comes out for a break Williams is inserted and the offense doesn’t miss a beat with fresh legs in the game. Toussaint improves his blocking enough to become a competent third running back that can again contribute in the passing game.
Worst Case: The suspension appeal ends up being denied and Bell again is forced to miss time with his team. Bell loses some of his explosiveness and agility due to his injury and a lack of confidence in his ability. He is not the same player as before. DeAngelo Williams’ age, and the injury he suffered at the end of last year, catch up with him and he can’t effectively fill in for Bell giving the Steelers issues at running back all year long. Toussaint never improves his blocking and is not a factor when given the chance to see the field.
Offensive Line/Tight End
Best Case: Maurkice Pouncey returns from his latest injury and shows the people that didn’t see the difference between him and Cody Wallace what they were missing. The interior of the line stays healthy and cohesive opening up big hole for the running backs while it keeps Ben Roethlisberger upright. Alejandro Villanueva solidifies himself as a left tackle the team can trust going forward and he shows major steps forward with his progress. Ladarius Green is healthy from his offseason leg surgery and quickly gets on the same page as Ben Roethlisberger. Green relishes his opportunity to be the main starter on a team. In the Redone Green and Jesse James use their impressive sizes to give opposing teams matchup nightmares as they provide big tall targets that can go up and get the ball.
Worst Case: Pouncey isn’t the same player as before his injury and his play slips. Neither Villanueva or Harris are able to claim the left tackle spot as their own and the position gives the Steelers problems all season long with a rotating cast of characters. Green is either slow to get on the same page as Roethlisberger or is not used to being the fulltime starter and his play drops off as the season wears on. Jesse James never improves his blocking or his route running and is generally forgotten about as the second tight end.
That’s it for the offense. Check back tomorrow when we run through the defense and special teams.